South Pasadena lobbies for restoration of freeway veto right

This story originally ran in USC Annenberg's digital news: Neon Tommy.

South Pasadena is attempting again to regain veto power over a freeway extension through its core.

First passed in 1982 and then renewed in 1994, the Martinez bill, as it is commonly known, revoked a longstanding requirement that Caltrans get prior approval for freeway projects from a city or county whose roads could be closed during or after construction. Through a dozen finely crafted provisions, residents and officials of South Pasadena are the only ones who actually had one legal tool yanked out of their hands.

“It seems pretty crazy that they would single out South Pasadena like that,” said Greg Molina, who's lived in South Pasadena for 12 years but had not heard of the law until recently. “We should at least have a voice and the ability to proceed like every other city.”

The law doesn’t keep the city from using the courts and other statutes as the basis to block a potential project, but even Caltrans officials have previously admitted that the law is a bit excessive of a slap in the face.

As locals attempt to repeal the law, they also have their eye on the freeway project meant to connect Alhambra to Pasadena. The project has stalled for more than four decades because of environmental, safety and cost objections from residents across northeast L.A. County. Millions of dollars in studies have not changed their minds.

What many expect to be the final study in the saga begins this spring and continues for the next three years. In the meantime, even some project supporters such as South Pasadena Mayor Mike Ten acknowledge that its important that the discriminatory law come off the books.

A state Assembly committee is scheduled to consider legislation on Monday that would repeal the original law.

“Whatever South Pasadena has to do to have a say in the project, they should do,” said Patricia Chan, who moved into the city two years ago. She supports a six-mile extension of the I-710 freeway because she hopes it would alleviate traffic along roads such as Fremont Avenue, which she drives on multiple times a day.

“I mean we are among the ones most affected by a freeway,” Chan said.

South Pasadena’s recent lobbying efforts to repeal the Martinez law are the latest in a multimillion dollar campaign since the early 1990s. Throughout the whole process, project detractors have cited the importance of preserving everything in the politically-active community from early 20th century brick buildings to million dollar homes that help define the city's historic character. On numerous occasions, repeal efforts have lost momentum in the state Legislature because of opposition or lack of time.

Normally, Caltrans gets the approval it needs from cities affected by freeways. But South Pasadena had historically opposed completion of the I-710. Then-State Assemblyman Matthew Martinez, whose San Gabriel Valley constituents sought relief from traffic in their communities, moved to ease the process for Caltrans. After a superior court judge said the law had expired, Martinez's daughter who was then a state Assemblywoman was the one who pushed for reinstating the veto block.

The law concerns any “freeway segment within the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority” that Caltrans cannot reach an agreement with a city about “because an impasse existed for 10 or more years.”

State assemblyman Gil Cedillo is carrying this year's repeal bill, AB 353. His office expects the bill to clear the Assembly Transportation Committee without amendments next week.

South Pasadena's own state representative, Assemblyman Anthony Portantino has repeatedly demanded that lawmakers tell Caltrans point-blank that it needs to drop the freeway project. Portantino, who could announce a run for Congress later this year, was not available during a scheduled interview last week.

Caltrans would like to remain neutral on AB 353, the agency said through its L.A. region spokeswoman Maria Raptis.

With the environmental study for the potential project now underway, Caltrans declined to offer significant comment. The study could offer answers to key questions such as where in the region is there congestion and will a solution through the I-710 corridor actually improve overall mobility.

“Caltrans is driving the gap project, and we are reacting,” said Dennis Woods, South Pasadena's transportation director. “Caltrans is driving all of these studies, and we are reacting. You have to ask Caltrans what's driving them.”

The Automobile Club of Southern California, the California Trucking Association, State Farm Insurance, construction contractors and labor unions representing construction workers have previously supported the Martinez bill or opposed repeal.

Woods has asked the cities of L.A., Pasadena, Glendale, Burbank and La Cañada Flintridge to write lawmakers about sending the repeal legislation to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk.

“The project would have a huge impact on us,” said Ann Wilson, a senior management analyst for La Cañada Flintridge. “It's a city of La Cañada Flintridge issue as much as it is a South Pasadena issue, so we share some feelings.”

While the La Cañada Flintridge still hasn't taken an official position of support on AB 353, it has written to Metro, asking that their city be included in the environmental impact report study area.

Glendale is having their attorney review AB 353 before deciding whether to support, oppose or stay neutral on it, according to assistant city manager John Takhtalian.

Woods said they have engaged the Brown administration about signing the bill into law should it reach his desk.

“In terms of being just and right, I think there's a persuasive argument to be made in favor of AB 353,” said Mike Roos, a lobbyist for South Pasadena, who's been paid at least $700,000 during the past decade.

The city spent at least $153,000 on legal counsel Jan Chatten-Brown since Feb. 2009. Another attorney, San Francisco-based Antonio Rossmann received more than $2 million during the past two decades, according to a city report issued at the end of last year.

“We're in the championship on spending to fight,” said an 82-year-old man who has lived in South Pasadena for 35 years and declined to provide his full name. “But the freeway—tunnel or above-ground—would absolutely destroy us.”

Rossmann suggested in an e-mail to the city councilmen following last year's midterm election that support for South Pasadena's veto right legislation be sought from former Caltrans directors Adriana Gianturco, Robert Best, Jose Medina and Jeff Morales. Attempts to find them for comment were unsuccessful.

Like reporter Paresh Dave on Facebook, find him on Twitter or send him an e-mail.

1 thought on “South Pasadena lobbies for restoration of freeway veto right”

  1. Congratulations to Paresh Dave on reporting and crafting a balanced and readable story on the long-standing opposition to the proposed freeway extension through Alhambra, South Pasadena and Pasadena, including the proposed repeal of the law denying South Pasadena rights that other cities have.
    I’ve read a number of stories on this issue over the past 50+ years and this ranks as one of the better ones.
    Felix Gutierrez

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